Not long ago, my husband and I were traveling in Australia. When Sunday came around, we found a place to worship. The pastor, a guest speaker for the day, was a gifted communicator. He was funny, passionate, knowledgeable…and very open. But his type of openness made me squirm. His illustrations were uncomfortably revealing and sometimes very unflattering reflections about his family, members of his congregation and other influential people who revolved around his sphere of influence. His rhetoric was a strange mix of personal confession and mean sarcasm about his own spiritual immaturity and those he considered less spiritually mature. There was no hint of humility (except for the false kind) and his message was interspersed with a lot of coarse joking. I kept thinking how mortified and hurt I would be if I were the object of a story being told by this pastor to a room full of people. I left feeling discouraged, unsettled, and even a little angry.
We westerners value freedom of expression. That desire to divulge is also evident in church culture. I think that’s what I experienced with this church (along with a heavy emphasis on entertainment). Usually openness is couched with good intentions in order to promote community, authenticity and transparency. I find it especially prevalent in millennials and it’s something I admire. I think it’s evidence of their distaste for hypocrisy. But when does openness become a bad thing?
“When we gather together, we are to experience the reality of our common heritage. But we have cheapened the idea of sharing to the point where sharing now means to exhibit ourselves rather than to demonstrate Christ to one another.” (Encouragement, p. 47)
My worship experience this particular day highlighted some important principles from Encouragement regarding transparency within the body of Christ.
- Sharing for sharing sake, or to gain the attention and acceptance of others doesn’t always promote spiritual growth. Emotional honesty should take place within the framework of commitment to God and to other’s welfare. This is true koinonia (p. 45).
“Biblical and theological foundations are of little value unless real people in real places come to know and love Jesus in his relationship with “Abba” God as the Way of Life, and that is “life together.” [i]
Openness, authenticity and transparency are all great attributes, but they are better when tempered with sacrifice, self-discipline and obedience. (p. 48)
- If all we focus on is expression without restraint, our relationships will run shallow, missing the shared spiritual growth that God intends for us. Our relationships require real commitment to enter into the hard areas of life with one another. (p. 48)
“We much catch the idea that time spent with one another can somehow enrich our relationship with Christ, in much the same way that two mature children feel closer to their parents after discussing with each other how much their parents mean to them. Relationships with one another can be enjoyable and fulfilling and they should be. But the basis of our fellowship is our shared life in Christ.” (p. 49)
How can I experience a Christ-centered level of fellowship with all my brothers and sisters in Christ?
- Never speak hard words to someone or about someone unless your love for that person has formed a vision for who they are to be in Christ. Ask yourself, “Are my feelings for this person generated from love and a pure heart?” “Am I motivated by a desire for them to change for my sake – or for their sake?”
- Don’t confuse vulnerability and authenticity. Think of them this way:
Define vulnerability as making something known to another with a spirit of entitlement that obligates the other to respond well to your concerns. In other words – Is it all about me?
Define authenticity as making something known to another that reveals where you are on your journey toward Christ-likeness and invites (neither expects nor demands) another to walk together with you toward a mutual goal of maturity.
With those definitions in mind, pursue authenticity, not vulnerability, in what you choose to share. (p. 51)
I don’t really know what motivated this person to be so mean, but it occurred to me that maybe he was preaching from a layer meant to protect him from rejection. I think his efforts to be entertaining were an attempt to be accepted, something we all crave. Sadly, his biting humor and sarcastic jokes came at the expense of his loved ones and those he’s called to shepherd in their Christian walk. The result was that he was the center of attention, not Christ. And that’s the crux isn’t it?
I realized that we all have that weakness, in one way or another. He was no different than you or me. We can be motivated to do and say some crazy things when Christ-likeness takes a back seat to worldly approval. It helps me to remember that the only one I really need to fully express myself to is God Almighty. Expression solely for acceptance is wrongly motivated. (p. 52)
Is Christ-likeness really at the center of my sharing or am I seeking attention, pity or just a place to vent frustration?
We don’t need to be funny, we don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, or the hippest. We don’t need to be an attention-seeking open book. We do need to be aware that we are self-centered creatures living in a fallen body in a fallen world. It colors everything we do and say. But we have the Spirit of the living God who gives us the ability to truly love…to honestly evaluate what others need to hear from us as we seek to build one another up with mutual affection.
“And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24–25, HCSB)
[i] Icenogle, G. W. (1993). Biblical foundations for small group ministry: an integrative approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.